Author Q&A: Ariel S. Winter on Crime Writers, Children’s Literature and The Twenty-Year Death
Today I’m very excited to be hosting a conversation with Ariel S. Winter, author of The Twenty-Year Death which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing this week. Many thanks to Mr. Winter for taking the time to contribute such informative answers to this Q&A!
Part of the uniqueness of The Twenty-Year Death is your adaptation of the styles of three icons of the mystery genre: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Could you explain a bit why you chose these writers and what you think set them apart from other crime writers of their eras?
Simenon, I think, is set apart from any crime writer of any era. No other mystery writer (with perhaps the recent exception of John Banville) wrote “serious, literary” novels while also writing a popular detective series. Simenon’s hard novels were recognized at the time as major literary works. He was interviewed for the ninth issue of the Paris Review, decades before any other crime writers were ever interviewed. Andre Gide was such a huge fan, he started a treatise on Simenon’s work towards the end of his life. Those books are deep, prolonged questions about the nature of the human spirit when pushed to its limits, and they are as gripping and insightful now as they were then. And then alongside these novels, his Maigret books, while often dealing with the same concerns, even the same tone, can sometimes be light and humorous, almost like a good police procedural television episode.
Author Ariel S. Winter
Chandler, of course, came to define the hard boiled detective after Dashiell Hammett. His metaphors are so distinctive, they’re known as Chandlerisms, and almost any parody of the vintage gumshoe makes an attempt at them. Chandler’s detective Marlowe was deliberately a modern knight, something Chandler announces distinctly at the beginning of The Big Sleep with the stained glass window in the Sternwood mansion. Knights, in popular culture at least, have very strict and distinct moral codes, and seeing someone go through the worst parts of society while trying to cling to higher ideals is always inspirational. But bringing the kind of snide humor Chandler does, makes Marlowe unique among the detectives of the time.
Jim Thompson set himself apart with the kind of experimentation he did in his novels. In The Criminal, each chapter is from a different character’s perspective, examining how eye witness accounts and newspaper spin can affect the truth about a crime. In Savage Night, there’s a whole interlude in which the main character meets this odd writer, and then later goes to ground at the writer’s abandoned estate where it’s unclear if he’s attacked by a monster or become a monster, is narrating his own death, really, it’s very weird. Even The Getaway, which was turned into a movie in the ’90s, ends on a weird resort where criminals are indentured slaves to the resort owners, or maybe it’s just supposed to be hell. Yes, Thompson’s dark outlook, his ability to get into a sociopaths persona are what most people talk about, and with good reason, but it’s the wild side of his writing that really makes Thompson unique.
As to why I chose these three authors. Simenon was simply because I was reading a lot of Simenon at the time. When I decided on the structure for The Twenty-Year Death, I wanted to follow the first book with two other pastiches, and Chandler and Thompson were well suited to the story arc of my main character, and were authors I loved.
Read my review here
The challenge to write a book in the format of three separate novels – and to succeed, for that matter – is certainly an achievement. It begs the question: what inspired you to approach The Twenty-Year Death as you did?
The original impetus was simply the question: what would a mystery series look like if a character other than the detective was followed from book to book? I’ve always liked the idea of exploding a genre by exposing it to another genre. Since high school, I’ve thought about doing two movies, one a classic action movie, the other a romantic comedy that would intersect when the action movie hero crashes through the building in which the romantic couple work. Imagine Office Space if Mission Impossible briefly slammed through it. How would that change each of the stories? The Twenty-Year Death is another facet of that idea. If we’re to take the people in these highly stylized novels as representations of real people, how would the same real person look through the lens of each of these styles? How does that either draw a more complete portrait of the person or what does it say about how artificial a character really is in each of the writers’ works? Maybe The Twenty-Year Death gives us some idea. Of course, the first and most important thing was for it to be fun to read.
Prior to The Twenty-Year Death you’ve focused largely on children’s literature between your blog “We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie” and your picture book, One of a Kind. What was the experience of writing The Twenty-Year Death like in comparison to your previous endeavors?
Well, I’ve actually written novels for much longer than I’ve done either the blog or my children’s work. I was just able to get those things out there before any of my adult fiction. How they differ… Writing a novel is a matter of discipline, and it can be agonizing, constantly fighting the feeling that it’s bad, consumed with the anxiety that it’s failing or that I’m ruining it. It takes a long time, but at the end, you get to plop down a nice chunk of paper on the table and say, there, see that. I did that. When writing children’s books, the storytelling process isn’t that different. It takes a lot less time, which is a good way to relieve anxiety about not getting any work done. The main difference is that you have to think in terms of page layout. I don’t mean visuals. I didn’t have a specific look or style in mind when I wrote One of a Kind, but I did have a very clear idea about how the text would flow from page to page, how the page turns pace the story and time the jokes. When writing a novel or a blog, you don’t think about where one page ends and the other begins, but you have to when writing picture books. The blog is a completely different form. I do extensive library research and write a combination of academic biography and straight summary. The fun is in uncovering books that most people have never heard of, in getting the reaction, “Really? Gertrude Stein wrote a children’s book?” It’s time consuming, and gratifying, but it’s not that challenging. It’s a good way to make me feel like I’m at least doing something and not completely wasting my time.
One of a Kind by Ariel S. Winter and David Hitch.
Through your blog you work to acquire the titles of many lost works of children’s literature written by classic authors, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein among them. What prompted you to launch a blog on that topic?
As a bibliophile, I noticed over the years that many literary authors had written children’s books that were out of print. John Updike, Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe. Sometimes they were hidden in plain sight on their “Other books by” pages. Sometimes I saw them mentioned in an article or on Wikipedia. Every time, I had the same response. Really, so and so wrote a children’s book? How could these books be out of print? How do I get to read them? Originally, my idea was to put together an anthology collecting several of these books, and a lot of publishers were excited about the idea, but felt there was no way to make it economical. Eventually, I decided to turn the idea into a blog, which was what it should have been in the first place. This way, when people notice a book mentioned the way I did, they can search online and see images from the book, read a synopsis of the story, and learn a little about its history. My comments sections remain quiet, but I can tell from my page hits that I’ve reached a lot of people who are also very excited about lost children’s books.
Lastly, with The Twenty-Year Death on shelves and receiving such well-deserved accolades, what are your plans for future writing projects?
I spent the earlier part of the year rewriting an older novel And Other Permanent Things about a family coming together for the eldest daughter’s engagement party six weeks after the parents have announced they are getting a divorce. It looks like I will be doing further rewrites on that in the fall. And I have some picture book scripts floating around as well. Hopefully one of those will find a home sooner than later.
About Ariel S. Winter
A long-time bookseller at The Corner Bookstore in New York City and Borders in Baltimore, Ariel S. Winter is also the author of the forthcoming children’s picture book One of a Kind (Aladdin) and of the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, devoted to the rediscovery of long-forgotten children’s books written by literary icons such as John Updike, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein. His writing has appeared in The Urbanite and on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and in 2008 he won the Free Press “Who Can Save Us Now?” short story contest. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.